Exercise Analysis - Overhead Presses

When using resistance exercise to improve neuromuscular function, it is imperative to develop system components in a symmetrical manner. In fact, strengthening one constituent while neglecting another often results in a system that is functionally weaker than it was before training. With that in mind, it is reasonable to revisit the exercise considered last month and focus on the opposing movement and the muscles it targets.

Now, before you turn the page uttering, “If he thinks I’m performing handstand push-ups, he’s crazy,” hear me out. When I speak of the movement that directly opposes chin-ups, I don’t mean literally. Therefore, it is not necessary to turn yourself upside down and push your body’s weight up in order to balance the development you’ll get from chins. Instead, you can simply stay upright, hold weights in your hands and press them overhead.

Overhead presses work the muscles that raise the arm at the shoulder (deltoids), as well as those that straighten the arm at the elbow (triceps). In addition, every time the arm is moved at the shoulder, the shoulder joint must be repositioned in order to maintain the integrity of its ball-and-socket configuration. For overhead presses, this involves tension development in the upper trapezius and levator scapulae, muscles that form the mound-like bookends aside a bodybuilder’s neck.

The deltoids are a multidirectional muscle with three distinct sections (heads) that move the arm in different directions. Overhead presses target the front and side. However, degree of involvement can be altered considerably with slight modifications and once again, balanced development is key. Generally speaking, most people are overdeveloped in front, which causes the upper arm to rotate inward and results in a postural deficiency characterized by rounded shoulders.

To determine which section of the deltoids is prioritized when pressing weights overhead, you must consider the plane in which your upper arm is moving. If your elbow is pointing out to your side throughout, the side head will be stressed. This will develop shoulder width that is important if aesthetic enhancement is your objective (wider shoulders are essential for the coveted V-shape) and also keep emphasis away from areas that are typically overworked. When the elbows point to the front (either directly or at an angle), the front deltoids are emphasized and muscles that are usually strong from other movements (bench presses and front raises, for example) wind up shouldering the brunt of the effort.

Presses can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or on machines that have weight stacks or require plate loading. They can also be done either standing or seated. In all cases, it’s essential to maintain a neutral spine as you press because if you allow your spine to deviate from this posture and flex forward while supporting a load overhead, considerable stress is placed on vulnerable intervertebral disks.

The method of loading you choose when performing overhead presses affects upper arm positioning and is, therefore, a critical determinant of which section of the shoulder you’ll target. The most popular version is done with a barbell, but performing the movement in this manner presents a dilemma that reduces your options. Unless you are sans cranium (and I mean literally!), you must pass the bar either in front of or behind your head. Each has a significant drawback.

If your goal is to work your side deltoids and avoid exacerbating the classic lifter’s shoulder imbalance, you must pass the bar behind your head so that your elbows point outward. Unfortunately, shoulder soft tissue is under considerable stress when the upper arm is raised and rotated rearward, so while this type of barbell press is the most effective for targeting the weaker area of the shoulder, it’s also associated with the greatest orthopedic risk. On the other hand, passing the bar in front of the head is safer, but causes your upper arm to move in a manner that will only make muscles that are typically worked sufficiently even stronger.

If it were the 18th Century in France, the solution to this problem would require a quick trip to the Place de la Révolution. I am happy to report we have a more feasible option. Performing overhead presses with dumbbells is virtually the same as pressing up a bar, with one major exception. The path the weights travel can be directly in line with the plane that separates the front and rear half of the body without inducing Excedrin Headache Number 99 with a blow to the top of the head.

Overhead press machines have become popular in recent years and well-equipped gyms typically have at least one available. Unfortunately, many of these are constructed with the handles situated in front of you. Options for rectifying this design flaw in order to emphasize side deltoids include sitting backwards or placing a pad behind you to move your body forward. In addition, some of these machines have movement arms that are attached in the middle. This can mask a left-right imbalance and cause your stronger side to handle more than 50 percent of the load. Machines with arms that move independently should be used if you suspect your dominant arm is doing more work. 

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.





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